Staying mindful with nursery rhymes

I didn’t discover this fact until I’d already started writing, but it turns out it was World Nursery Rhyme Week in November. Knowing this gives me slightly more confidence in writing about something which we are perhaps not inclined to take very seriously!

I started thinking about this because I had been struck by how rhymes are everywhere in the parent-and-baby world into which you enter as a new mum, and yet they are such an accepted part of the provision on offer, that the explanation given for why we sing them does not seem to go much further than a very basic listing of the benefits for a child’s development. As I attended various rhyme time sessions at the library, I found myself wondering: if this is to be a part of my life now, then does it mean anything, in terms of the language we are introducing to little ones? Is there anything more to this than having a nice time together? 

It is easy for the singing to become a bit mindless, once you’ve done the hard work, of course, of learning the tune and the words of the rhymes which are new to you. And the mindlessness can be a relief: it gives you time out to smile at the other babies as your own looks around, and even the repetition gives you a break from having to think all the time of what to do next. 

The actual fun is in the interaction, in anticipating the next line and then almost acting out a response for your baby. ‘Hickory dickory dock, The mouse ran up the clock’ [babies around the room are whisked into the air]. Or in Sleeping Bunnies: ‘They’re so still, are they ill? Wake up little bunnies! [lifting baby onto her feet] Hop little bunnies, hop hop hop …’

Some of our favourites give us a reason to dance: Down in the Jungle (‘splish, splash, a boogie woogie woogie’), and, of course, Dingle Dangle Scarecrow: (‘I can shake my hands like this, I can shake my feet like that’). Numerous rhymes are great for counting, providing the perfect trick for spinning out the lines: Ten Green Bottles, Five Little Speckled Frogs and Five Fat Sausages are possibly the most memorable from my own mental list. 

But there are a few rhymes that have won my attention for other reasons, in that they seem to have something more to say. It has made me smile to notice a little germ of thought here and there and to recognise that that must have come from a fellow caregiver, even if I can’t know who they are. Vita Sackville-West described nursery rhymes as ‘tiny, unconscious works of art within their own limitations’, and there are several here where I started to become more conscious of that ‘something’ that they had to say:  

  • Celebrate the ordinary – why not!: The Wheels on the Bus – This is the first nursery rhyme we introduced to our daughter, and it has certainly stuck. Buses, as we know, daily make their unending journeys round the circuit, just as the song itself goes round and round, and yet the song happily converts what could feel like dreary repetition into a bobbing rhythm. 
  • Keep calm and carry on: Incy Wincy (Itsy Bitsy) Spider – You might think the rain would finish him off, but no! By the last line our spider has set off once more to climb ‘up the spout again’. This might be a nod to the genuine difficulty of getting rid of spiders for good, but who can feel annoyed when you realise it’s Incy Wincy?
  • Imagination & word painting: Twinkle twinkle little star – This, so I learn, started off as a poem of five stanzas, written by Jane Taylor, who would have been in her twenties at the time. The rhyme is now so well known that it is easy to gloss over the words, but reading the poem allows me momentarily to appreciate it afresh. I love how it points out the ‘little’ and ‘tiny’ light that makes such a difference to the traveller, even if we know that it is only from our own limited perspective that the star seems tiny. The words themselves gesture towards something that we do not fully understand: ‘How I wonder what you are!’
  • Emotional literacy: If you’re happy and you know it – Mostly this song just repeats the ‘if you’re happy’ line. It’s good that there are two steps here: being happy and also knowing it / owning it. But how about if you’re not happy? Occasionally, I’ve seen other verses added: ‘If you’re sad and you know it, shed a tear’ or ‘If you’re angry and you know it, stamp your feet’. Personally I think the more we can use these other verses alongside the first, the better. I like the idea of being told how I might safely express an emotion, especially when it’s an uncomfortable one.
  • Love & loyalty: Mary had a little lamb – Based on a true story, this is the tale of the lamb who accompanied Mary everywhere, even when she had to go to school. “Why does the lamb love Mary so?” ask the other children. I suspect they receive their most important lesson, that day, in the answer that follows: “Why, Mary loves the lamb”. What makes us special is not just who we are but also how we love.
  • Independence starts early: Five Little Ducks – What are those little ducks getting up to when they don’t come back? I so recognise these ducks who won’t come when they’re called, and yet I love that it all works out ok in the end. Well done Mother Duck for hanging in there! 
  • Family & bedsharing: Ten in a Bed – In times past I’m sure it was more common to have to accommodate ten in a bed, or four or five. But certainly there is more struggle involved in bedsharing than I had really been prepared for, and ‘the little one’ isn’t necessarily the one who takes up the least space. “Roll over! Roll over!”
  • There are consequences: Five Little Monkeys – Every parent knows not to leave a baby on the bed. And that jumping on a bed is likely to end in tears. But how to convince a Monkey of this until it happens? 
  • Difference & solidarity: John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt – This little ditty originated in America, but the internet of course means that we now share many of the same media, and so I heard this sung with no preconceptions and some interest. There is just one verse which runs on repeat: ‘John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt, His name is my name too. Whenever we go out, The people always shout, There goes John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt. Dah dah dah dah, dah dah dah’. Apparently the rhyme touches on the arrival of a large number of immigrants from Germany, whose names seem to have provoked some mirth amongst the locals. But the line that sticks out for me is ‘His name is my name too.’ I certainly wouldn’t want to go out of it meant I was to be shouted at everywhere I went, but if I had a friend who identified with me and made up a song to counter all the shouts, well – that would make a difference.
  • Your way is not the only way: The Country Mouse and the City Mouse – The city mouse thinks nothing can compare with the pleasures on offer in the city, only to find that there are things which the country mouse values beyond the rich variety of tasty treats that can be salvaged in the city. I thought this was telling in itself, but I also didn’t realise that this tale has such a long heritage and that it has been explored by so many writers down the centuries. This is one I’m certainly going to look out for in some of its other iterations.

Mostly what is written about nursery rhymes seems aimed more at early years educators/practitioners, as opposed to parents, but I wanted to include a few further thoughts on the subject with the latter in mind: 

  1. The sense isn’t separate from the nonsense in nursery rhymes. Perhaps this is related to the importance of play in learning? 
  2. Even if we don’t understand exactly what the meaning is, these rhymes are not meaningless. They ‘provide the opportunity for children to value language’ (‘Importance of Nursery Rhymes and Songs’,
  3. Nursery rhymes give us a common language to share whilst we’re struggling to work out who we are and what we’re doing. 
  4. They connect us to parents and caregivers in other times and places, and can reconnect us with our own childhood memories. ‘Nursery rhymes are part of our cultural heritage, passed down through generations linking the childhood of grandparents with their grandchildren.’ (Tales from the Sandpit blog)
  5. They remind us that not everything will go right, and it would be strange in fact to expect that it would. ‘If you acquire a nursery rhyme-ical attitude, you’re not at all put out by life’s little bumps and bruises. They just seem funny and entirely normal.’ (Iona Margaret Balfour Opie) How I need that plain common sense in my life!

Image by Tarishart from Pixabay


Making peace with time

that their happiness may protect us
now and on other days.
– Yehuda Amichai

One year in to your life on earth, and we are both in flux, ready to move on – and yet not ready to let go of the baby days.

Me: I can’t quite understand why there isn’t a constant song of protest in the air from mothers crying out “please don’t grow up!” Or perhaps at a soul level, if we could only hear it, this is the cry that is going up. Or then again, perhaps other people don’t feel this as intensely, are relieved or simply excited to see such rapid change. How would I know what others feel?

Why don’t people talk about how this feels? 

Every time I see a child who is older than five, I think: yes, that is going to happen to you too, you will lose your babyhood; and I’ll have to watch it happening. 

Couldn’t you be the one exception? (It is so hard to imagine you being “big” that yes, there is a part of me that thinks this is possible!) Is there no way to hold onto this stage? I understand, now, that the fantasy of a place where a child can forever be a child is not created solely, or even principally, to satisfy the imaginations of children. 

You: You are practicing new things all the time. 

  • Daddy will sometimes get a wave; last night he got three. 
  • You are interested in lids: not all of them have a cap that you can pull off. One of the creams has a lip on the end of the cap which you can lift up. Some of the lids require a twisting action to allow you to get to what’s inside. Daddy’s been showing you how to do it, but it’s quite a hard thing to master. 
  • Climbing is getting to be quite fun. You can climb over Daddy Mountain by flopping your way over his legs. You can climb up Mummy’s legs as far as her knees, when she’s sitting down. And you can reach the seat of the sofa, or pull yourself onto the first step of the mini stairs, when you have a mind to do it. 
  • You recognise people, places and things. You’re starting to have favourites: soft bally ball, Milo the monkey, Daddy, and Granny’s cat, whose suspicious reserve leaves you unperturbed.

Me: It’s easier now than it was for those of us who know you to take your existence a little more for granted. You have the feel of someone who isn’t going anywhere; you’re here to stay, and your little personhood is an undeniable fact. This is something to celebrate. But I find I still want to be alive to those little jolts of surprise that other people convey when they meet your eyes for the first time. The open mouth, the light in the eyes, the direct smile. Is this partly what I’m scared of losing? That the longer you’re around, the more we’ll forget that just your sheer presence is enough? Or is it the other way round: that your excitement for the world makes everything fresh and new, and I can see you becoming more accustomed to things within it day by day?


  • You are eager to use your energy well, to spend yourself on your surroundings. You have no fear that it will run out, that you will be swamped with tiredness. When you’ve had enough, you sleep (eventually). When you haven’t, you won’t. 
  • You sleep in total surrender to the forces of goodness and love. I remember, now, that we used to wonder if that was a dream flickering across your face. What could you be dreaming of, we used to say, when there is apparently so little material for your thoughts? But your sleep seems somehow more secure these days. Your hand rests where it falls, just like your head.

Me: I notice that as your spirit develops more independence, it becomes more possible for you to be a participant in the things we are doing. The more that you become you, the more we can relate, and bond, and share as interconnected beings sitting together at the table of life. 

But if that is the case, then I have one request to make of you. Please teach me. Teach me what you need, and what you know. Teach me how to be – here – and teach me how to love. 

Image by PBCPartners from Pixabay

Words: with and without

“Hope” is the thing with feathers – 
That perches in the soul – 
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all – 
Emily Dickinson

I have a hunch that these lines may not be, as at first they seem, an attempt to define “hope” as something to which one can point as a verifiable and distinct entity. This brings me back instead to the sense that I don’t really know what hope is. Hope in what? For what? Who has it, and why, and how? 

Hope is the “thing” we start off with. Because according to Dickinson, it is what we know even as pre-linguists, in our first and original wordless state. 

Babies go for months without uttering what we can really describe as a word. I find this fascinating. There is a stage during which, as little human beings, we have no need for words, and do not feel the lack of them. 

Children and birds are related, somehow. They are the lovers of song. Small enough not to worry about their place and size in the world. Flexible enough to flit here and there, to move and wobble and balance and not stay put. To sing the tune and follow the notes without needing to know the chords, nor reach a final end point.

And yet, whilst we can’t go back to being children, this ‘thing with feathers’ is the part of us that ‘never stops’. ‘At all.’ It doesn’t sing about anything that can be defined, or pinned down. But it sings. Oh hell, it sings. 


How do I reconcile this then, with The Word? Why bother with language? Why ‘progress’ to books?

I guess purely because it allows us to speak to one another. Whether we’re physically present to one another or not. The Word spoken and written. The Word inscribed on stone and smashed to pieces. The Word that had to be repeated, repeated, repeated, in different voices, in order to stay alive. The Word that was buried, over and over, and encased in wood and board, until someone should find it and bring it once more into the light of day.

Otherwise, books become a burden. The heaviness of them, their weight. The way they sit there, unread. 

And the heaviness, the difficulty, starts early. What on earth is one meant to do with a book?! How bring the book to the child, or indeed the child to the book? How attempt this when books cannot yet mean what they say, when there is no knowing yet that books carry meaning? 

To the parent asking such questions, for whom the advice about reading every day to your baby doesn’t yet feel realistic or practical enough, I would say: don’t panic. I know the advice is ‘it’s never too early’, but really – she will find it in her own time. 

It starts with turning the page. It was when, one day, having been left to her own devices for a moment, we returned to her turning page after page of a board book that we knew something had clicked. You can do something with books; they aren’t just static objects. And you can see something different if you turn the page, something perhaps unexpected or new.

But there is no reason, yet, why the pages should go from left to right. So you may find yourself going backwards for some time. And words and writing don’t yet exist, so there may not be time for any reading, try as you may. 

For now, the books that work have at most one short sentence per page; bold, colourful pictures without too much detail; new characters to be met on each new page; and something to touch or hold onto – but not necessarily flaps as they’re in danger of being yanked out or torn!

And so it begins. The world opens up, and wherever the book has come from, it finds now another reader. 

Image by fokustier from Pixabay


‘Summer, when the living is easy
and we store up pleasure in our bodies
like fat, like Eskimos,
for the coming season of privation.’
Summer in a Small Town, Tony Hoagland

‘Pleasures are not, if they last;
In their passing is their best.
Glory is most bright and gay
In a flash, and so away.’
Are They Shadows, Samuel Daniel

‘And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.’
I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, William Wordsworth

I am often being told: “enjoy it while it lasts / make the most of it … it goes too fast.” This worries me on two counts – am I enjoying my 10 month old daughter enough? And how will I manage those phases to come, when the current time runs out?

The thing is, some days I’m just getting through. It was the same, when I think about it, when I was working full time; people would ask if I enjoyed what I did and I would think – well yes, in theory, but in reality? In reality the enjoyment can get overshadowed by all sorts of other things.

Getting through the days is part of the job, I think. It’s the bit of our lives that others don’t see, that I can only guess at when I see the other mothers looking so happy and beautiful, each in their different ways, at the baby groups we sometimes manage to get to.

But when I take a step back, I can see that these moments of being and looking at our best are a kind of reward for all the getting through, and that we need their sustaining power too for the hours ahead. 

I had, at some points, thought that pleasure was surplus to the necessary requirements of life, that it was what people did with what was spare and left over: time, money, resources. And even pleasure can take effort, and I can often feel like I don’t have the energy even for that.

But these moments when we are alive to where we are, who we are with, what we are doing and what we are feeling are the highlights that put our experiences into relief. I would have more of them, not less.

So before another week slides by, here are some recent ones I have salvaged from memory: 

  • DD plucking grass for the first time on the top of a hill. She loves the feel of it coming free in her hands, just as I did. The indiscriminate way in which some blades come loose from the earth, and others remain. She could sit here for some while, going from one meditative pull to another, just as I did. And in a very small way, the bountiful earth seems here once again inexhaustible, despite the threats and the damage that we all know about.
  • DD with a red and white striped straw from Costa. You think we’ve produced these to save the planet, to safeguard teeth and sell a brand, she seems to say, but look what I can do with it! I can impress Mummy with the psychedelic patterns it makes rolling along the table; I can play with it or drop it and see if Mummy will pick it up; and when I’ve done all that, I see it is excellent for chewing.
  • DD’s joy upon opening a book she hasn’t seen before and finding on the very back page … a mirror! Rocking backwards and forwards to zoom in and out of the baby face in front of her. So perfectly contained, and so unexpected! 
  • For both of us, the surprise of suddenly spying DD’s reflection in the glass of the iPad, which I had forgotten was sat there on the windowsill. Enjoying a moment together, as surprise breaks through the surface of the ordinary.
  • DD smiling the same smile as DH, and I the lucky one who is there to observe the match. The smile bounces from face to face, reflected one in the other. 
  • Perhaps most of all, I am aware of giving pleasure when we take DD out, whether it be to the supermarket, a coffee shop or the local chip shop. People stop what they are doing to talk to her and enjoy her smile. An older woman stacking shelves; a woman wearied by her day at work; a woman who is out for the day with her carer; even a father who already has his hands full with his own son. DD is thrilled to have someone new to meet, and despite all the social conventions and differences, it seems people can’t help responding as if we did all truly belong to the same family.

At other times I am buoyed up myself. It feels good to be able to notice that these moments are still possible too:

  • Driving downhill from a slip road onto the motorway, and accelerating up to speed. That surging feeling of: “we made it, we got out, and we’re on our way!” It is a pleasure to have somewhere to go, a destination to aim for.
  • Entering a park and stepping into a different space, one that doesn’t ask so much of me but which extends its own shadow of protection and solace to those who wanderingly seek it. Here the noises are different, the feel of the ground beneath my feet is different, and the shape and colour of things is different. We don’t have to go either up or down; we can stop, gently pass through or simply be. 
  • Holding hands, which I forget has become a rarity now that normally one of us is occupied with the pushchair. The feel of safety and steadiness, of those hands that I have known and that know me.

Often I think we can be persuaded that pleasure is something to be sought, and then bought. It is sold in quantities and for pounds and pence: 100g chocolate, £15 for afternoon tea, an hour’s baby entertainment for £5. But whilst we are promised happy times, my sense is that when we pay for something, it follows that we get so much and no more; it is not that the goods are mis-sold or subject to false advertising, but rather that the pricing is in fact both accurate and exacting. There can be a weariness in paying for pleasure all the time. We have to give as much as we get.    

Life itself, though, comes to us free. Pleasures dart in like a bird on the wing, or a sunbeam falling across the carpet. They do not stay, but neither do they leave us empty, so long as we have been touched.   

To believe or not, Part 1

‘Wit’ is a word that tends, now, to have rather light connotations: a person can be witty and impressive, or lose their wits and be foggy-headed. But its origins offer a reminder of the hold that ‘wit’ has on every individual, because of what it attempts to do. The word comes from the Old English wit(t), denoting the mind as the seat of consciousness. This is what keeps us awake and alert to the world around us. It strives to know and understand; to use the mind to sort out the things that it observes.

The poem below takes on one of wit’s investigations, as though this is a kind of mathematical problem. But I find it charmingly beautiful that the poem manages to present this with such simplicity:

Wit Wonders

A God and yet a man,
A maid and yet a mother;
Wit wonders what wit can
Conceive, this or the other

A God, and can he die?
A dead man, can he live?
What wit can well reply?
What reason reason give?

God, Truth itself, doth teach it;
Man’s wit sinks too far under
By reason’s power to reach it.
Believe and leave to wonder.

Anonymous (fifteenth century)

I am struck by the effect of that indefinite article, ‘a’, in the first two lines. These are unnamed characters in a story that had not yet become overly familiar. It reminds me of those fairy stories in which we are asked to visualise figures who populate our own earth, but who do not fit our ordinary conceptions of human beings. In a fairy story, strange things become possible, and it is the characters who are most like us who realise this, since they themselves encounter such happenings and are transformed in the process. In Sleeping Beauty, the young prince stumbles across a palace harbouring a woman whom he finds to be the perfect fit – ideally primed to evoke his desire. He hadn’t been looking for it – he had been out hunting when he saw the towers of the palace rising above the wood – but when he hears the tale of the sleeping princess he cannot help but investigate. The girl who looks as if she had just fallen asleep wakes up, unchanged, after a hundred years.

‘A God and yet a man, / A maid and yet a mother.’ You and I know to extrapolate from this the label ‘Christianity’, but the poem asks us to suspend this knowledge of the framework and simply to consider the possibility of the thing, as if it didn’t matter what we were finally to make of it. The proposition is that the law of either/or has been put to one side, in this single instance: big is married with small (God / man), and suddenly there is no difference between before (maid) and after (mother). Together, these two lines challenge the criteria with which we are able to discriminate ‘man’ and ‘woman’.

But my favourite part of the poem is the line that follows, which feels to me the most complex: ‘Wit wonders what wit can / Conceive’. The alliteration simply underscores the sense of the mental gymnastics here. ‘Wit’ doesn’t wonder first and foremost about the problem itself; wit wonders whether it is up to the job of thinking about it. I think maybe ‘wit’ is even a bit unaccustomed to wondering. Certainly wit is more used to conceiving than wondering. Wonder is open-ended. It allows for things other than itself: for the ‘what’ that is yet to be defined. 

Yet for wit this is a struggle; it is difficult to see beyond the categories upon which we rely to organise existence – ‘this or the other’. Hence the questions of the middle verse – all four of them – form the centre of this poem, and are allowed to stand without any immediate answer being given. What I like is the tone of these questions. They seem to say: is the impossible possible? Can it be? (And surely not?) ‘A God, and can he die? / A dead man, can he live?’

What I would like to think is that the questions can feed the wonder. The third verse feels a little too easy; attempting a resolution where there cannot really be one, and yet the poem does end for me on the right note. It is as if wonder is the only place to go.

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

What do you make of it?

I have been thinking about what a baby might make of being here in the world, and what we tend to want them to make of it.

It is curious that we each have this beginning, a beginning that is entirely our own and yet at the same time constantly replicated the world over, many times a second. It is curious that each of us has this experience firsthand, and yet none of us can fully know or describe what it is like.

Instead, Thomas Traherne attempts to recall what I don’t think any of us can ever truly remember:

How like an angel came I down!
How bright are all things here!
When first among his works I did appear
O how their glory me did crown!
The world resembled his eternity,
In which my soul did walk;
And ev’ry thing that I did see
Did with me talk.

A native health and innocence
Within my bones did grow,
And while my God did all his glories show,
I felt a vigour in my sense
That was all spirit. I within did flow
With seas of life, like wine;
I nothing in the world did know
But ’twas divine.

Harsh ragged objects were conceal’d,
Oppressions tears and cries,
Sins, griefs, complaints, dissensions, weeping eyes
Were hid, and only things reveal’d
Which heav’nly spirits, and the angels prize.
The state of innocence
And bliss, not trades and poverties,
Did fill my sense.

The streets were pav’d with golden stones,
The boys and girls were mine,
Oh how did all their lovely faces shine!
The sons of men were holy ones,
In joy and beauty they appear’d to me,
And every thing which here I found,
While like an angel I did see,
Adorn’d the ground.

The use of the word ‘things’ would seem to be rather a loose generalisation. But this keeps recurring in the verses above and it makes me think of how exciting the most basic of ‘things’ can be to a baby. Just the existence of a new ‘thing’ – at this stage nameless, of course, and therefore most thing-like – can be a source of engrossing fascination. A hair is suspended from the others and hangs in mid-air. A cushion has corners which jut out, blaring colour. Zips come in different shapes and sizes, and have a complex appeal that is quite unrelated to their function.

But ‘things’ are also no less wondrous than people, in the poem. The child does not have to make that category distinction between inanimate and animate, stone cold and alive. The lines move seamlessly between ‘the boys and girls’ and the ground or streets on which they appear; beauty is everywhere.  

And everything calls out to be touched, for contact to be made, and connection established. There are no barriers here either. In fact when I look at how a baby engages with the world it makes me realize how many barriers there are equivalently for me. Politeness; knowing and respecting the difference between ‘mine’ and ‘yours’; busyness and distraction; familiarity. Knowing the names and the categories for things means I don’t need to greet or encounter them afresh each time. I guess this means that so many of the things around me take on a functional value, whereas the baby sees things almost as the painter of a still life image: the glow of colour, the radiance of light, the play of shadow, and the allure of shape.

What I do see is what the baby has yet to learn about; that list which enters with a kind of cascade into the poem. ‘Harsh ragged objects’, ‘oppressions tears and cries’, ‘sins, griefs, complaints, dissensions, weeping eyes’. These are the things that make the news and call our attention. They exist as things that we cannot seem to solve, though people are crying out for help. But if things are wrong on an abstract level, their meaning is to the baby mercifully ‘hid’. She cannot see what is at a distance or round the corner, what is happening to others or even what worries and upsets those she loves. Her senses tell her something different about the world.

Looking into the faces of those she meets, our little daughter is expectant of a smile. She has learnt that she is quick to get one, and avidly seeks them from strangers and friends alike. ‘The boys and girls were mine, / Oh how did all their lovely faces shine!’ It is as though everyone is there for her delight, and the faces reflect that delight back to her. It is hard that she will have to learn later on that the world does not belong exclusively to her. Yet I cannot be other than glad that she has this experience of being greeted so in her first days and months on the earth.       

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Food – is it ever simple?

People say having a child makes you see everything in a new way, with fresh eyes, removing the jaded filter that somehow affixes itself to us as we spend time in the world. But I had thought this meant things like smelling the flowers, or noticing snail trails: things that I knew about but had just forgotten to pay attention to. I didn’t quite realise what should probably have been self-evident: that it would require of you that you go right back to the beginning, and re-discover one by one each of the building blocks that are needed to make up a human. Suddenly you are faced with everything from the other way around: instead of the answer, you have the problem, and instead of the solution, a need.

So, for example, with feeding. You merrily look forward to feeding your baby, lured on by beautiful pictures of babies held securely in their parents’ arms, the adult smiling and the baby content, whether with the breast or the bottle. Meanwhile the stage is set for weaning several months later, with recipe plans and guidance on portion sizes to tempt you on. It doesn’t occur to you until you are faced with it that there may be a question: will the baby want to feed? Will the method you’ve so carefully chosen be accepted by your baby? Will they take to it, and if not now, how long might it be before they do?  

If a baby can reject certain kinds of food or feeding approaches, it makes me wonder how they learn to identify what food is. What is food to a baby? What does it mean to them? I would like to think that understanding this is still relevant to how we feel about food as adults. For some time I’ve thought of food as something that gives me the strength or energy to get by. In pregnancy this was heightened to a more urgent necessity: throughout the nine months I needed food in order to feel less sick, so that most of the time I wasn’t too fussed what it was as long as it was available. But since having a baby I’ve started to notice that food does require attention, and it is not a side issue in the life either of a little person or a big person. The need is perpetual and doesn’t go away. But I think this need only becomes inconvenient – with its nagging way of inserting itself into our days – when we lose sight of what food is for.

Food is rhythm and punctuation: I find structure incredibly reassuring; long days without plans scare me. But when other activities are yet to be decided upon, the need to feed can at least give the day a beginning, a middle and an end. I find it sad somehow when it feels like that is all there is, or you become part of an institution where the food-window is simply determined by the time on the clock. It can become then just a matter of getting the thing done. But as things are at the moment, I enjoy the rhythm of working to my baby’s timing, where she will let me know when she is hungry, and all I need to do is to be ready for it. Whatever happens with each day, I can be sure of these intervals, these pauses where we can both stop to get what we need.

Food is an expression of love: I think food is such an essential that this is something which as human beings we really get. Jesus seemed to tune into this when he said: ‘There isn’t a person among you who would give his son a stone if he asked for bread, is there?’ The child asks for what he knows to be good, and the parent’s instinctive response is not to deny it. But it happens too in friendships and relationships of all kinds, and most of the time we may not even ask for it. A colleague brings some vegetables into work that they have grown in the allotment: not only because they have some going spare, but in the knowledge that someone will be able to enjoy what they have shared. A friend comes over to visit and brings a sharing pack of Borders biscuits (the posh ones), and suddenly the thing which I wouldn’t have thought to buy if I’d seen it in the shops feels like the perfect treat.

Food is given: It comes from somewhere, and often from someone. It is given by the earth, and by those who tend the earth, or man the machines that harvest it. It is given by those who cook and plan and put the food together. It is given so that we can give to ourselves, and so that we can give to others.

Food satisfies: But it is about more than meeting the hunger. It brings relief to our bodies; it settles us. Until this point, so much of our energy can get absorbed in straining for what we don’t have, but once the body settles, there is room to look around again and begin something new.

In a seventeenth century poem by Edward Taylor, food forms the basis of a religious metaphor, but through this focus on the bread of life there is also a reimagining of what all living things share in common. The soul is pictured here as a bird, and instead of the soul being the ephemeral part of a person, it becomes the very part that requires physical sustenance:

When that this Bird of Paradise put in
This Wicker Cage (my corpse) to tweedle praise
Had pecked the Fruit forbade: and so did fling
Away its Food; and lost its golden days;
It fell into Celestial Famine sore:
And never could attain a morsel more.

Alas! alas! Poor Bird, what wilt thou do?
The Creatures’ field no food for Souls e’er gave.
And if thou knock at Angels’ doors they show
An Empty Barrel: they no soul bread have.
Alas! Poor Bird, the World’s White Loaf is done.  
And cannot yield thee here the smallest Crumb.

I find it a surprise that not even the angels can help. But sometimes it feels like that: everything you try is empty, and everyone has run out. It underlines I think how consoling it is when you do find that ‘soul bread’, and when you work out what the source of that is for you.

Perhaps that is what I am coming to: that it is a journey for each of us to discover what nourishes us, what tastes we like, and what satisfies our hunger. It takes time to work out how we get it, and then how we continue to get it. This is ok; it is how it is meant to be. But because this is all a matter of learning and discovery, there are two further thoughts I have about some of the pitfalls I am most keen to avoid for my daughter.

Food is not a measure of being good: The two have become incredibly hard to disassociate for our culture, and within our society, and I believe this makes the ‘relationship’ that we have with food very difficult to maintain and to enjoy. There is the saying that we are what we eat. But what I choose to eat does not make me either good or bad. At worst, I might make a poor decision that makes me feel poorly a little later on. But this should not define my sense of my own ‘virtue’ or ‘sin’. Food is not the problem.  

And secondly…

Food doesn’t have to be your standard of perfection: Though it is all too easy to think that this is what we should be aiming for. The perfect meal plan, the perfectly balanced plate, the right amount of nutrients, the right level of energy for the right time of day. I thoroughly enjoy learning about all of these things. But it is too hard to manage this every day, all of the time, and I also feel that trying to be perfect (with food) rather misses the point. Food can be messy, things go wrong, experiments sometimes fail and we do not achieve the desired result. There will be another day. What didn’t work today can serve as practice for next time.

Because although I don’t always feel this, it is ok to be hungry, to admit that I am, and it is ok to be full, and to be glad of it. This is what I want my daughter to know.

Cloudy to clear

Sometimes the past feels more real than the present. But I have been surprised by this feeling of things being a little surreal. I look around me and I can’t quite remember how I got here. The intermediate steps might have been intermediate, yet I feel a need to reach back for them at times, to feel for those moments where I made a choice or discovered a sense of conviction.

I am reminded of this by the Dickens novel I have been reading. I don’t manage very much at a time, so I may take in an episode or chapter, and when I later come back to the book, I find it has moved to another set of characters and a different, if related, scene. There is no obvious main character around whom the plot revolves, which means there are a number of plot threads to keep hold of and you don’t quite know which bits are ultimately going to be most significant. I have just reached a part where a young girl changes her mind about the older man who had been a business contact but also a supportive friend to her, and who she had started to distrust. I had to look back a number of chapters to find the place where this distrust had begun to set in. Jenny is a canny person, but her sharp eye and the necessity of fending for herself against the odds have taught her to guard against falling prey to others’ faults. There is a moment when, as she looks on, the old man is trapped into compromising himself by the employer for whom he acts, leading her to rush to the conclusion that he is the ‘wolf’, the creditor who will not be appeased.

Before she is able to put two and two together in such a way that she can re-form her judgment of this man, Jenny spends some time in the dark, avoiding him – despite the fact that she has so few people on whom she can rely. Her own father is to all intents and purposes her dependant: the habits of his alcoholism seem to have drained away any capacity in him to see what he might do for her. And yet she never rejects her father: she is too duty-bound, seeing him as the child who needs her as opposed to the parent he might and should have been. Her reality is too stark for this even to be the subject of discussion: she accepts her lot as she has also accepted her physical disability and the suffering that has accompanied her growing years.

But what, then, of these unvoiced disappointments? What happens when they are left hanging? Because it feels like these ought to be a big deal but when there is nowhere for them to be articulated, they cannot do anything other than colour the atmosphere of everyday life.     

Our Mutual Friend is a novel that carries a number of unusual surprises however. For whilst it is threaded through with suspicion, and most of the characters either practice suspicion or are the subject of it, actually what is revealed in the end is that it is often a person’s goodness that has been hidden and has to be found out. It is as if the world has become one in which it is harder to believe that people have certain values and qualities than to suspect they are corrupt. The most generous man in the novel is perceived by others to be developing increasingly miserly interests, but to read his behaviour in this way is to see only what exists on the surface. The plot is deeper than those who are carrying out their own little acts of detection are able to realize.

Goodness eventually makes its appearance; often accompanied here by the sound of laughter. Mrs Boffin laughs heartily when her husband is exonerated, and when others are finally able to see that the man by whom she had always stood was worthy of her good faith. Mr Boffin, too, had chuckled to himself as he reflected of an evening on the impression he had created all day, for the purpose of demonstrating to a young woman in his care that the pursuit of money can be a dangerous trap. Laughter is the honest person’s reward. It is enjoyment, plenty, unabashed confidence. It is the thing that doesn’t have to be hidden any more.

Laughter has got my attention recently. That adult-to-adult laughter sometimes goes dormant within me and it is wonderful to have moments where you feel it unexpectedly awakening again. The body calls back to itself and makes its own sort of sense. Things don’t have to be justified through any other means.

In Our Mutual Friend, the character who laughs the hardest and most often is also one of the least privileged. Ungainly and awkward, long-limbed Sloppy has little to recommend him to the casual eye. But he is so quick to laugh when he does, on occasion, appear, that he carries a rather unique presence within the novel. The old woman who has taken him in comments that ‘You mightn’t think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.’ The visitors to whom she is introducing him look at him out of politeness and he, in response, ‘suddenly threw back his head, extended his mouth to its utmost width, and laughed loud and long’. I sense he is there as an example to us all.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Noticing: What I have in you

written Feb ’19

I’ve been aware on and off for a while that it would be a very good idea for me to have a go at keeping a gratitude journal. But, when it comes down to it, it can be hard to think creatively on the spot beyond the obvious big, generic things in life, so I’ve decided to make a start by dipping into this post over several weeks and using it as a focus.

Interestingly, researchers who have studied the use of gratitude journals advise that focusing on people to whom one is grateful carries further benefits than focusing on things for which one is grateful. I’m so glad of my little car and the opportunity of getting out as and when I need it. But the car will never know that. There is a chance on the other hand that when I am grateful to, or for a person, my relationship with that person will be enhanced, and the two of us might both feel the effect.

I worry a lot about relationships. I worry about what people think of me, but also about how I feel about them. I can find myself trapped in a loop of critical judgement of others, when all I want to be able to feel is love.

It feels important to write about the two characters in my life with whom I spend the most time: my husband and my three month old baby. At work we have run a scheme in the past where every member of staff was encouraged to send anonymous notes to colleagues: those whose work, behaviour or presence had made a positive impact on them in some way. It is easy to go through our lives carrying out thankless tasks; easy but not, perhaps, necessary. If this is true at work, how much more important might it be to take this on board at home? And if I can practice noticing these things quietly, to myself, perhaps I will be better able to practice that awareness and appreciation in my outward actions and manner.

Here is a first attempt:

DH – He will often make efforts to put me first. He is insistent about giving me the option of being the first to have dinner while he holds our little one. He recognises me, and sees the ‘work’ that I have to do.

DD – She can stare at me for a very, very long time. No one else is so interested in my face! She looks up out of the pushchair, or from the floor where she lies relaxed. There is no question, or demand, or particular emotion in her gaze; it is just pure attention.

DH – His favourite job is to hoover the stairs, and he does it with pride. When I’ve spent the week logging the little jobs that need to be done as I track around the house, he comes home and does those he has spotted, without my mentioning it.

DD – Sometimes she yawns her tiny-lipped mouth into a diamond shape, reminding me of a little bird. Occasionally, as she’s feeding, she lifts off the corners of her mouth briefly to have a private smile to herself. But when she gives a big, open smile, her mouth widens into a softly irregular shape, testing all those corners, letting it in.

DH – He interests me. His developed opinions interest me. His knowledge, understanding and experiences interest me. I don’t have to work on tuning in (except when already braindead!)

DD – She is beginning to laugh. All giggling babies sound cute, but it’s not just cuteness that I see. It’s a little person coming to life, suddenly and just for a few seconds, but in an unmistakable way. For in that moment she feels independent from me: it is some quirk in her that has responded to what we are doing together – I haven’t made her feel it, as I perhaps do sometimes when trying to cheer her up.

All of this comes to mind slowly; I have to make a real effort to find room for it. This is the opposite of those feelings that fire up in the moment, which I can often find difficult to control. But it is the things that last that matter, and I hope in starting this record that I can make these observations stick, even if the things I am noticing are themselves fleeting and change from day to day. I certainly cannot boast of anything more than Piglet:

‘Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.’ – A.A. Milne

Image by kaboompics on Pixabay

All of a sudden

written Jan ’18

Lying in bed, the image that starts to come to mind is that of tenpin bowling. In my own personal version of not incredibly proficient bowling, the ball drops and rolls slowly towards the end of the aisle: there’s some suspense as we watch it roll. When it finally hits the pins there is a loud clatter, as a number of them fall into each other and hit the floor, and this feels sudden, even though it was expected, even somewhat planned for. The contrast of the predictable rolling and the crash of pins in different directions is immediate, and stark.

I didn’t go in search of this image, but it came to me in relation to how I have felt about having our first baby. Life had been rolling on in its rather ordinary way for some time, with much of our energies going into the demands of our respective jobs and the renovation of our new house – both being projects that never quite come to an end. Once I became pregnant, we knew we were moving towards a big change, but much of this felt unknowable and difficult to imagine until it happened.

I was struck during this time by an awareness that however I felt, and whatever lay ahead, there was no turning back. In an era that celebrates and encourages self-determination, one can change one’s mind about most things. There can be opportunities to retrain, to have a second career, to move to another part of the world or even to find another partner and try again at establishing a mutually satisfying relationship. But my body told me I was now committed: as if I was entering into a new kind of commitment, with a new person who would exist beyond me and my wavering thoughts, even whilst she was inside of me.

This was only confirmed when our little girl was born. What I had expected was a rush of ecstatic joy, the kind that you read about, the kind of feeling that denotes a mother. But what I found myself thinking in those first few weeks was that perhaps I was learning a new definition of love. For me, before I could have that emotional connection, I needed to focus on doing those things that help a person to know they are loved. To begin with, it was all about doing. Getting out of bed, lifting, feeding, cleaning, washing, holding, soothing and singing to her. And it was only by staying close to her while we did all these things that gradually I began to feel something, and could at the same time allow our little girl to get to know who I was. Now, as she lets her little hand rest on my chest as she is feeding, I feel that we have started to get somewhere, that she has begun to trust.

Another Valentine’s Day is approaching, and I wonder what all of this means for my understanding of ‘love’. What am I looking for, now, in this new stage?

There is a thrill in looking forward to days like these which help to mark our shared experiences and relationships. It is a treat to be surprised. But what I am going through at the moment is teaching me, rather than longing for some sign or gesture, to recognise how much I have already been shown love: before I could reciprocate or know what was being done for me. I want to be able to honour these exchanges, which are taking place all around us more frequently than we know.

Birth is a shock, and it takes a while to recover, for everyone involved. But as soon as it happens a new path appears, one that I could never have found on my own. It is impossible to tell where it will lead. But this is where I am reminded of a Sheenagh Pugh poem:

What if this road, that has held no surprises
these many years, decided not to go
home after all;
… What if its tarry skin
were like a long, supple bolt of cloth,
that is shaken and rolled out, and takes
a new shape from the contours beneath?
…. across hills you must climb without knowing
what’s on the other side; who would not hanker
to be going, at all risks? Who wants to know
a story’s end, or where a road will go?